Vijay Pattni26 June 2014

First drive: the Audi A3 e-tron

Petrol-electric hybrid hatchback is finally here, and it’s promising some Big Numbers

What's that?

It's a step into the future of Audi. It's the A3 e-tron, the first production plug-in petrol-electric hybrid from the Four Rings To Rule Them All that promises your wallet some much needed relief. It even reckons on tickling the parts of your inner Stig other hybrids just can't reach.

How so?

The A3 e-tron gets Audi's 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, shifted six centimetres to the right (if you're looking at the engine compartment from dead ahead) compared to a regular A3. We'll come back to that shortly.

That engine features a lightweight aluminium crankcase and a tightly packaged intercooler with a high performance coolant pump, and weighs just 100kg. It produces a nice, round 150bhp and 185lb ft of torque, and that's just the start.

Why is it shifted right? So Audi can squeeze in the components required for an electric motor, which brings yet more power. The motor itself is bolted on behind the dual-mass flywheel, along with a new six-speed S-tronic dual clutch gearbox, all driving the front wheels.

This little motor weighs 34kg, powered by a battery pack located underneath the rear seat bench for better weight distribution. It produces 99bhp and 243lb ft of torque, contributing to the e-tron's total system output of 204bhp and 258lb ft of torque.

I'm intrigued. Feed me some statistics.

Gladly. The A3 e-tron go from 0-62mph in 7.6 seconds, and reach a top speed of 137.9mph. Not too shabby at all.

This is the part you start talking about ‘cakes' and ‘having' and ‘eating', right?

Quite. Audi claims the e-tron returns a CO2 equivalent of just 35g/km - meaning it's road-tax free - and theoretical fuel consumption of 188mpg.

Wow.

Get that in the real world and we'll eat our fat-free rice cakes through our noses. But what you will get is a lovely, premium hybrid hatchback that doesn't shout your eco-warrior status, but quietly goes about its business. And it is quiet.

The e-tron always starts off in EV mode - unless it's too cold outside or the battery is low - which means silent acceleration. And it's a wonderfully satisfying way of floating around. The e-tron works electrically right up to 81mph, which means that as long as you've got good charge, you can surf the lovely instant torque all day long. Well, for 30-odd miles, anyway.

And with that well damped interior, refinement is superb. You can also set it to ‘hybrid hold' mode, which means it'll use the engine and save the battery energy; the idea being you do motorway journeys on petrol power, city schlepping on electricity. Simples.

What about charging it?

Coasting, brake energy regen, or a simple plug. Just unhook the four rings logo on the grille, and plug in: from an industrial power outlet, it'll take two hours, or three hours and 45 minutes from a household plug. There are some smart displays inside that show the flow of power, how much charge is left and your driving stats.

And when you want to go Maximum Stig?

There's a hybrid mode which combines petrol and electric for full power, seamless bringing in the 1.4-litre four-pot, which has been fitted with coated piston rings and bearings to aid with cold starts while on the move.

The power band is narrow, but as a package it's more than swift enough for your moderately proportioned helmsman with an eye on his wallet.

You feel the extra weight though: the electrical system adds 125kg to the A3 Sportback, meaning a kerbweight of 1540kg. Compare that to the 2.0-litre TDI A3 Sportback's weight of just 1320kg (thanks, lightweight MQB chassis!). In isolation the e-tron still feels really good to punt around in - though still lacking any steering feel - but the whole thing feels a little bloated compared to a regular A3.

Tell me about range.

Audi says the 8.8kWh battery is enough to power you for a solid 31 miles. On a not-very-representative test loop, we managed a four-hour trip with 69 per cent of that run on electricity, the other 31 per cent on fuel. That's some 51 miles on battery. Which is good.

So should I buy one?

Tricky question, because UK pricing - including the government grant for electric vehicles - puts the A3 e-tron at £29,950 on the road. Which is more than a BMW i3, but then that's a different, more shoutily ‘eco' proposition.

This e-tron is certainly a more attractive car than say, a Prius, and comes with the familiarity of a standard A3 with mega efficiency. It's an expensive initial outlay, yes, but actually good fun and frugal too. A diesel is a lot cheaper, but then so's a bus pass.

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